Lessons for Today from the 1981 Saudi Arms Deal

Nov. 13 2018

In October 1981, President Ronald Reagan announced he was going through with an agreement, initially negotiated during the Carter administration, to sell Saudi Arabia billions of dollars’ worth of sophisticated weaponry, including five Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS): airplanes whose advanced radar could detect otherwise undetectable incoming aircraft. Israeli officials, Prime Minister Menachem Begin included, were concerned that these systems would give Riyadh a technological edge over the IDF. Accordingly, the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) embarked on one of its most ambitious lobbying efforts ever to convince Congress not to approve the deal. Arnon Gutfeld offers a detailed history of the ensuing dispute and explains its relevance in light of the more recent controversy concerning Benjamin Netanyahu’s public opposition to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran:

[Both the AWACS episode and the dispute over the Iran deal] underscore the constraints on the maneuverability of a small state in its bilateral relationship with a great power. For the great power, the relationship with the small state, however important it may at times be, is but one on a wide spectrum of interactions. For the latter it is of crucial, at times even existential, importance. This is all the more pertinent to Israel’s relationship with the U.S., its staunchest, indeed its only, great-power ally. . . .

In American political culture, failure is considered an unforgivable sin. This means Israel and its local supporters must carefully choose the battles they pick with an incumbent president as every failure is bound to undermine the omnipotent image of the pro-Israel lobby and diminish its ability to win future battles. In this respect, the AWACS deal seemed a battle worth fighting, given its seemingly high chance of winning in view of the near-universal Jewish-American opposition to the sale; strong congressional opposition; and a friendlier president who could be expected to show greater understanding of Israel’s needs and vulnerabilities.

[By contrast], the Iran nuclear deal involved a potentially existential threat to Israel that overshadowed most political/foreign policy calculations and necessitated a [riskier] strategy. . . . While the Iran deal cast a shadow on Benjamin Netanyahu’s already turbulent relationship with President Obama and put “daylight” between the Israeli government and the Democrats (to use Obama’s term), it did not undermine the U.S.-Israel “special relationship” to the extent forecast by doom-mongers, with Netanyahu playing an important role in President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal and to re-impose sanctions on Tehran. Whether or not this achievement will prove either lasting or beneficial over the long term remains to be seen.

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Read more at BESA Center

More about: AIPAC, Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran nuclear program, Menachem Begin, Ronald Reagan, Saudi Arabia, US-Israel relations

 

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy